PURPOSE: To assess attitudes and expectations of obstetric patients toward the involvement of medical students in their care. METHOD: At the Medical Center Hospital of Vermont in 1991, questionnaire responses were collected from 222 obstetric patients who had been assisted by clerkship students from the University of Vermont College of Medicine and 78 patients who had refused the participation of students. The responses were analyzed for differences in demographic backgrounds, prior hospital experiences, and general expectations of student involvement, using chi-square, two-tailed t-tests and analysis of variance. RESULTS: Both groups of respondents consisted primarily of young, well-educated, married women, who appear to have made their decisions about student participation by balancing their personal needs and their sense of altruism. For example, 61% of those who had refused the participation of students ranked the desire for privacy as their primary reason, whereas 73% of those who had accepted student participation ranked as their primary reason the desire to contribute to a student's education. Although both groups of patients expected the students to perform few clinical procedures, the patients who had refused student participation expected the students to be more involved in patient care than did the patients who had allowed participation. Of the 25% of the patients who had had students involved in prior pregnancy care, those who had currently refused student participation had less positive views of prior student care. CONCLUSION: Patients' needs for privacy, past experiences with student care, and expectations of student performance should be considered to ensure the respectful incorporation of student involvement in obstetric care.